Today, I’m pleased to feature a book review by Matt from the Procrastin8tor. This APOV guest review is something I’d like to feature more on this blog. If you’re an atheist, skeptic, agnostic, or just plain curious and would like to write for this blog, please leave a message on the About page.
Our professional procrastinator offered to review this iconic science fiction book for me after realizing how little of the early, iconic science fiction books I have read. He offered to help me pad out my reading portfolio. Enjoy.
A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Review by: The Procrastin8or
A Case of Conscience is a Hugo award winning novel published in 1958 by celebrated sci-fi writer James Blish. It is set in the decades following first contact between humanity and a race of giant sentient lizards from the planet Lithia.
Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is a Jesuit and a fully qualified biologist. Though this is a pretty normal state of affairs – especially now since the Catholic Church accepted evolution as far back as 1996 – in Blish’s time the Vatican had a very neutral stance on Darwin’s theory: neither speaking out against it nor fully embracing it while insisting on their doctrine that humanity is a special creation regardless of whether evolutionary theory was true.
Ruiz-Sanchez position then might seem completely normal to us today but when written, he might have been considered a very forward-thinking character. Despite this, there are aspects about the man that really grate on the reader. He claims quite bizarrely that biology is in fact a religion and comes up with this rather peculiar nugget: “if you put scientific standards first, excluding belief, admit nothing is proven then you have nothing but empty gestures”. Now, I know that the book was written in the 1950s but it seems that Ruiz-Sanchez is suggesting that science is inherently postmodernist. The other possibility is that this is Blish’ own misunderstanding of science. For me, neither stands up as a possibility. Ruiz-Sanchez’ as one of the world’s foremost biologists (he must be as part of the emissary team) should know better that science doesn’t need faith to make claims in confidence. It is a strange point of view to make the claim that “excluding belief, you admit that nothing is proven”. If this is Blish personal point of view, then it is an odd claim to make considering his background in microbiology and personal agnostic philosophy. I simply cannot understand why such a viewpoint is aired in this book – it doesn’t sit right even though the 1950s were the beginning of postmodern thought.
But anyway, let me get on with the review. Lithia is the first planet outside our solar system it is discovered contains sentient life. It has an unending supply of natural gas and an abundance of lithium-6 (a substance vital for the mass-production of nuclear weaponry). The occupants are an interesting race of knowledge-cherishing giant lizards who have developed electrostatic power. In some ways their technology is in advance of ours; in other ways they are lagging behind humanity. Due to the lack of naturally occurring iron, magnetism is still a fledgling technology for example. At one point, Ruiz-Sanchez explains that meteorites contain iron, showing them how to accelerate their research into magnet related technology. The most concerning aspect (for Ruiz-Sanchez at least) is that the Lithians have no religion and no concept of salvation, the afterlife or gods, no creative arts or superstitions yet finely honed social rituals and a carefully constructed code of ethics. They devote their lives to learning solely for the greater benefit of their society and with no concept of reward or incentive, or even greed.
Instead of being impressed or intrigued that such a society can evolve without any religion let alone Abrahamic doctrine, Ruiz-Sanchez becomes incensed and proposes that humanity cuts off all contact with Lithia. This, he decides purely of his own volition on the basis that it is hell, a place without God, with clear evolution, a defined code of ethics that has no source, a paradise and intellectual utopia. He perceives that this planet is a trick, a mockery by Satan of the Creation.
Ruiz-Sanchez views are not taken very well, especially amongst his bosses in the Vatican as he has stated unequivocally that Satan has the power to create a planet. After a bit of a debate with the Pope, Ruiz-Sanchez is accused of Manichaeism heresy, excommunicated and instructed to perform an exorcism, something that he flies to the moon to perform. One piece of bolognium later and we have invented a telescope that can “bypass” the speed of light to allow the Jesuit to view Lithia in real-time despite being 50 light years away.
!!!SPOILER ALERT!!! At the same moment that Ruiz-Sanchez is performing his exorcism, Cleaver is powering up the reactors when something goes wrong. The result is that Lithia is destroyed and it is left to the reader to decide for themselves whether it is the exorcism or the lack of a Health and Safety Executive at the nuclear plant which is responsible. !!!SPOILER OVER!!!
I’m not sure this is a book with an APOV beyond that which is imposed by the reader, and of course THAT ending can be taken either way depending on your own philosophy. Yes, Ruiz-Sanchez is pompous and his insistence on the supremacy of Catholic doctrine is the most destructive element of the narrative even though he seems to lose most of his faith in the end; his continued refusal to put aside his inner priest and allow his inner scientist to blossom in the face of what would otherwise have been obvious is frustrating. He wants it both ways at times.
Blish has carefully constructed a Lithian reproduction cycle that is reminiscent of the evolution of life – eggs laid in the oceans, cracking open to reveal tadpoles that run the gauntlet of predators until they beach, lose their legs and then grow into juvenile amphibious forms before becoming land-based creatures as adults. It is surprising that Ruiz-Sanchez does not see this as billions of years of evolution illustrated in a single generation – so fixated is he on this paradise being a corrupt garden of Eden full of nerdy marsupial velociraptors.
What is more clear cut, and perhaps the greater warning for the first half of the book, is the all-too familiar destructive nature of western imperialism. From the time the emissary mission arrives on Lithia they are scouting the planet for knowledge and resources to plunder and get annoyed that they are not sucking up a free market system that is clearly beneficial to Earth’s interests but not Lithia’s; the Lithians ever pragmatic realise this. Knowledge is the only currency on the planet and the human powers discuss this as an irritation while discussing how to exploit the planet’s resources and its people. There is some suggestion that we could treat them like slave labour and nobody really objects.
The book, despite having such an interesting premise, is flawed in that none of the human characters are particularly likable. Very little actual sympathy is displayed for the Lithians who are treated as stubborn savages by one section of society and the spawn of satan (sometimes literally) by everybody else. The premise that Lithia is a satanic creation is not treated with the disdain it would have received even in 1958; it is far too easily accepted by everybody. The characters are lacking in depth and Blish commits the schoolboy error of telling rather than showing – this is concerning that despite these flaws it still won the Hugo in 1959.